Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Indie Game Developer: The Definition

A continual debate rages that is more charged than politics, more heartfelt than religious conviction and more hotly contested than Roe vs. Wade. The unanswered question echoes; “What is Indie game development?” This argument endures throughout the year, but it’s never heard louder than right after the announcement of finalists or winners of an Indie game development contest. Cries of “Cheater, Cheater, you’re not I N D I E” ring throughout the air (well, okay, the internet air).

My desire to unite the world and promote love and happiness has driven my quest for an answer. Not just an answer to satisfy myself but one that is so clear and so undeniable that everyone must agree, “That’s Indie.” I believe that, in a moment of pure brilliance, I have uncovered the truth.

Drum roll…..

Indie is exactly what you are. Anyone who you think has an advantage over you isn’t Indie.

I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of years living in Italy. There I learned something about human nature. Many of the northern Italians believe that their culture and traditions are different from the southern Italians. They also believe that they are slightly superior to their southern neighbors. The northern Italians are quick to point out the higher crime rate in southern Italy and the fact the Italian Mob also began there. I believe this type of division is common in many countries, cities and even small towns. The fact that this division exists isn’t interesting in itself. The interesting observation is the geographical location where everyone places this division between the north and the south. I lived in many different cities during my stay in Italy and I noticed that everyone placed the division just a little south of where they lived. The further north a person lived the higher he or she felt that dividing line should be. In fact, in some very northern cities many of the Italians consider themselves to be Swiss. They were just stuck in Italy because of some arbitrary division of countries and would quickly point out that their ancestors, living in that very city many generations ago, hadn’t always been Italian. Despite the fact everyone in these towns can speak perfect Italian, many would choose to not speak Italian and often pretend they didn’t know how.

This same type of thinking is often apparent when developers are finding reasons to disqualify a developer from holding the honored title of “Indie.” This list can be as innumerable of the stars. It is rare that a definition is solely based on what qualifies a developer, but instead focuses on what limitations a developer must embrace. Some of these restrictions include items such as the following:

• Big publisher financial support
• Budgets that are too big
• Financing from investors
• Too much industry experience
• Publishing on platforms other than PC or Mac (no consoles)
• Publishing on any platform or with any web site that has restrictions or requirements
• Having worked with publishers - ever
• Previous Indie development success
• Schedules that are considered too long for the development of a single game
• Too large of a team
• Use of office space for development instead of a basement
• Use of commercial software or big commercial game engines
• Telling a story in a game
• Visuals that are too high-end and pretty
• Use of 3D
• Making a game that is mainstream and commercially viable (No first-person shooters)
• Desire for financial success
• Lack of distain for authority and publishers
• Not high enough quality

Of course this is just a small sampling of disqualifiers. The amounts on some of these items also can vary greatly. For example, on the budget issue, some developers go so far as to say that you shouldn’t spend any actual money--everything should be done with free, volunteered labor--while others might place the budget cap at $1 million.

Some of these restrictions seem very logical and fair and some seem totally ridiculous. But look closely. Can you see how each item actually reveals the self perceived flaw or weakness of the developer who is using these criteria as a means of disqualification of other developers? For example, the developer who excludes developers who use too large of a team may actually wish he had a bigger team or at lest think he could make a better game with a bigger team. Take thought before you next choose to cry out in protest--you may be inadvertently exposing your innermost insecurities to the world.

There are some developers who feel confident enough to include other developers with larger teams and lots more cash than themselves in the sacred Indie circle. These individuals simply believe that these factors don’t actually provide as strong of an advantage as other attributes often found in Indie developers. With creative freedom and a willingness to take risks, they can make amazing games that aren’t dependant on big teams or big budgets.

This definition doesn’t answer the question of who should be granted the privilege of entering an Indie game development contest. However, it forces me to think harder about my own evaluation of who I consider to be an Indie developer. The next time I try and make this distinction, I should ask myself the question, “Would my opinion change if I was just like them?”


Anonymous said...

frosty piss!

Tom Schaffer said...

this list may best desribe "how to be a casual-flash-mini-games-developer". but i cannot see any connection between "not using 3d" or "not telling a story in your game" and being an indie.

seems like a joke. are there actually people out there who use this list? ;)

alexandre said...

I've really find your reasoning interesting and believe you've stumbled in something meaning, but I can't stop thinking how close you are from start an 'Indie Caste System' debate...

cellurl said...

Wonderful north south observation.
-jim (below the Mason Dixon Line)

Steve Fulton said...

This is pretty good!
The funny thing is, we pretty much have all the features of that "indie" list, but we don't even really consider ourselves to be "indie", but kind of sub-class to even that designation. We don't spend money because we don't have it. We don't use commercial engines because we can't afford them, not because we don't want to use them. However, I would never disparage anyone their indie cred. It's a flexible term, and lives in the eye of the beholder.

Anonymous said...

I was with you right up until you started talking about those who include others in their list. I think it's possible to have an opinion about this without having to relate it to one's place in the pack. Indie in the business sense should certainly mean that you're not an internal studio at Microsoft; Indie in the spirit-of-indie sense should certainly mean that you're not remaking Quake 2. Beyond that, it's anyone's bet.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. The same kind of thing goes on with regard to "indie" movies.

Oh, and this also reminds of a forum signature I saw once:

"Everyone that drives slower than me is an idiot. Everyone that drives faster than me is a maniac."

Isn't that the truth?

cellurl said...

Enter a speedlimit here.


mromanuk said...

I liked the connection between the geographical dichotomy north-south and the Indie development :).
Anyway i'm wondering if this north-south alignment is the same in the whole world and every culture...

Axeman said...

I always believed an indie was a person/group of people who make a game they designed off their own back.

I don't believe that having investment, staff or an office is a factor, but more the interpretation of the word 'independent'

I own a limited company that makes computer games. I have staff, a budget and an office, but I would still consider myself an indie because the games we make are games 'we' decide to make. If I was making someone else’s game then I would not class myself an indie, but again this is all down to the interpretation of the word.

So in my eyes an indie is anyone who makes a game they designed and then have total control over its development. People who are backed by or untimely influenced by share holders or publishers are not Indies IMO.

But again it comes down to how people interpret the word Independent.

cellurl said...

I don't remember this exactly, but I heard once that you must always conquor heading north or east. History shows that conquoring heading west or south fails....

Anonymous said...

Independent from the major publishing houses

Brent Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent Fox said...

I have actually seen someone use every argument on my list. I know that some of these items on the list may seem crazy but it’s true and each person using it had some sort of reasoning behind it. I even noticed that in some of these comments to my blog post that others have tried to express their definition of “Indie” but it can get complicated fast. For example, the large developer, Bizarre Creations, who worked on Project Gotham Racing for Micorosoft made the Xbox Live Arcade game Geometry Wars. They spent their own money and it was their own vision. Are they indie?

If you are independent from major publishers does it mean independent just for that game, or does it mean you have never worked with a major publisher. Is anyone who makes a game for the Xbox console on the newly named “Indie Games” section, not indie because they have worked with Microsoft?

I’m not giving my opinion on who is indie but rather saying there will be different opinions and these opinions are almost always based on the perspective and self comparison of the individual who is making the judgment call.

cellurl said...

anyone want to develop an iPhone speed game for us at wikispeedia.org ?

indie of course...

Anonymous said...

There's nothing special about North-South. The East-West divide in Germany is an example of a longitudinal rather than latitudinal spectrum.

Scot said...

I think a good example in real life for this is Stardock. They are very successful with their space strategy games which would tend to disqualify them but it is a title completely under their control which qualifies them again. They do not add expensive copy protection systems which qualifies them but they have a fully staffed development team using schedules and budgets so they are disqualified again.

Anonymous said...

It's been noted throughout history; there's always something or someone to the east, west, north or south, and always an opinion or idea to go along with the notion of difference. The center is only the center as long as you're standing in it and another man's "center" is just that. Opinions are the same. Always someone to the left of you, right of you, above or below you, because they aren't you. However, the crux there is the pronoun you ... This particular [indie] definition/crowd/contest isn't about a you. It's about the object they made. The game is the only thing being claimed as Independent (or otherwise someone's got a personal problem). If the game is not independently created (i.e. Backed, developed, or promoted by a corporate enterprise) then, well, it's not independently created. Seems pretty straight forward. But hey, music labels don't seem to care anymore so I guess Indie meaning independent is on the way out. :P